“Arise, my child! Arise to realize your true potential!” — Father Balder, Bayonetta
Upon request for a plan of his novel Ulysses, James Joyce answered, “I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.” The man had a sensibility for nuance and subtlety. Take his short story, “The Sisters,” which appeared as the first story in his 1914 collection Dubliners. It’s a first-person narrative recounting the death of the fictional Reverend James Flynn. Our narrator, an unnamed boy, struggles to express exactly what it was that his tutor meant to him. In that signature, subdued Joyce style, the story’s meaning cannot be extracted directly from the actual text, but through its subtext: the way the boy is curiously concerned with the religious symbolism of the Catholic church; the way adults, particularly his aunts and uncles, prattle about the late Reverend either shallowly, dismissively, or disdainfully; the way these conversations and his reminiscences about the Reverend’s lessons expose awkward and undefined feelings of anger, wistfulness, and mourning.
These moments are where the story trades in its restricted tone for passionate emotion. Who was the man known as James Flynn? A past mistake—Flynn’s accidental breaking of a chalice during Mass—is enshrouded in shame, bitterness, and mystery; it’s never deeply discussed. Yet it’s central to the plot—and to Flynn’s relationship with the boy. But what really happened? Why does this matter so much?
We’ll never really know. It’s up to us to study the text—and to then draw our own educated, but subjective, conclusions. We must learn the religious and literary symbolism, understand the historical implications of the Ireland Joyce was writing about. We must try to understand intimacy and loss, and to empathize with the unlikely friendship of a young boy and an old man. Most importantly, we must not form our opinions based on personal or modern social biases. And we can never, ever assume that even when we’ve studied our hardest, the meaning we derive from our own analysis will necessarily be the correct or only meaning.
That’s Literary Theory 101. It’s a class too few people take, and is largely dismissed by outliers as a bunch of hooey which overvalues opinion and disregards objective truth. This profound misinterpretation is no more obvious than in much of the conversation spawned by SEGA’s Bayonetta. From the moment of pre-release hype up until several weeks after game director Hideki Kamiya made a rather indefensible quote about his favorite metaphor in the game, bloggers, commenters, and professional critics and journalists began to weigh in on the integrity of the busty protagonist, seeking easy answers rather than engaging with the complexities the game proposes. The internet almost immediately polarized itself: Is Bayonetta a strong female protagonist who owns her sexuality? Or is she no more than a virtual male plaything, another unattainable sexual ideal?
Of course the problem with all this is that our world—and most of the people in it—doesn’t split neatly into binary oppositions. But these simplifications are also what allow us to make sense of the world; the complexity of the universe being what it is, we like to dilute information into something digestible. Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstructionism, recognized that language tends to reflect societal hierarchies, largely through sets of oppositions. For instance, the concepts of dark and light possess particular binary meanings for various Western and Eastern peoples. Bayonetta, if exposed to deconstructionist analysis, demonstrates an amalgam of not only Western and Eastern connotations, but of so many role reversals, subversions of binary meanings, and ambiguous motivations that Derrida may very well have had a field day.
Is Bayonetta a sexual figure? Well, yeah. Kamiya is quite explicit about the emphasis placed on this aspect of her character. My cynical side finds it probable that Kamiya re-skinned his ever-smarmy “Dante” persona with ungodly female proportions. Is she also a strong character? Arguably: she is not only the game’s heroine, but a witty and courageous one at that—saved only once by her arch-nemesis-turned-ally, Jeanne.
Of the many arguments posed about Bayonetta, one of a handful to adequately approach this duality is that of Jonathan Holmes in his third instalment of video column Constructoid. In the video, Holmes compares Bayonetta to Princess Peach as her diametric opposite. Princess Peach stands for what is traditionally wrong with female representation in games: she’s submissive, helpless, fragile, and has no personality of her own. She is simply the romantic foil and narrative context for Mario. Bayonetta, however, is a heroine; she is self-possessed, confident, and powerful. However, she also comes off as something of a caricature of female sexuality, put on pornographic display for the express purpose of titillating male gamers. Holmes’ argument is well reasoned, balanced, and very sound, but it inherently splits Bayonetta into binary opposites: the Madonna and the Whore. While this approach is self-aware and consistent with the show’s format, Holmes polarizes Bayonetta’s story and character by placing the focus almost entirely on her sexuality.
Bayonetta, thus, is a whole person, a blurring together of light and dark, good and bad, feminine and masculine.
Let’s take for granted that most action characters, even male ones, are sexually idealized and often archetypal (I’m lookin’ at you, Kratos). Let’s take for granted that female representation in games is generally pitiful. Using these as context, Bayonetta, with all of its exuberance and colors and cleavage, comes to us as an absurdist work, with echoes of Joyceian subtext, which blends dark and light into various shades of grey. Bayonetta is a metaphor for the war waged in the game between the dark Umbra Witches and the light Lumen Sages. As the child of a Witch and a Sage, she is the fusion of both worlds and therefore exists as a threat to both. On the surface, this sounds thematically similar to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and even Ikaruga, both of which play with light/dark oppositions. But Bayonetta turns it into fascinating symbolism.
Consider the most basic moral application of the light/dark metaphor: the dark Umbra Witches with whom Bayonetta identifies are damned to Hell because of a pact made with the Devil for their powers. This constitutes the “bad” side of the moral opposition. The “good” side belongs to the Lumen Sages, whose relationship with God grants them a variety of sacred powers (which, realistically, are not all that different from those of the Witches). Take into account that all Witches are female, all Sages male. This automatically entangles either side in a yin-yang of gender roles and a Western, Judeo-Christian attitude that the female sex is inherently flawed and damned: the Original Sinner, whereas the male sex is a direct image of God—righteous, supreme, and blessed. The cultural implications of these juxtapositions are demonstrated in the Witch/Sage metaphor: from the traditional Western perspective, women are aligned with moral vulnerability and the Fall from Grace, whereas men are typically identified as the inherent leaders and protectors of society. Bayonetta also cleverly parallels these moral-spiritual traditions with sexuality: naturally, female sexuality becomes something fearful and threatening, and men who can control it are controlling an otherwise destabilizing evil. Light and dark in Bayonetta play upon our notions of morality, spirituality, sexuality and gender, splitting them into ostensibly classic binary opposites.
Yet the very existence of our protagonist is an indication of how this game reverses these oppositions. Her dualistic heritage was the impetus that plunged the two barely-cooperative sides (which had previously held history in a status quo) into war, ultimately leading to the undermining of the Umbra Witches and the 500-year-long coma of Bayonetta at the bottom of a lake. In a sense, Bayonetta’s birth led to the submission of women by men. In another, there remains the very potent possibility that because Bayonetta is a living example of the power of female and male forces working together, her awakening represents a cooperative future. Bayonetta, thus, is a whole person, a blurring together of light and dark, good and bad, feminine and masculine.
While we learn of the opposing natures of the Witches and Sages, their moralistic roles become reversed when we realize that we are fighting angels invoked by Lumen Sages. Several role reversals take place: we learn that the Lumen Sages are warlike, fanatical con artists who have conditioned the world to hate and defame Witches for five centuries; we learn that their leader, Father Balder, is Bayonetta’s dear old megalomaniacal dad; we learn that under the gilded, glimmering vestments of the angels lie grotesque monsters. Our male romantic foil, Luka, is a near-constant, if spry, damsel in distress. At times he is a helpful companion—but it is never he who saves Bayonetta.
But the effort of questioning is no less worthwhile: this is how we build empathy, humility, and learn to appreciate the complexity of the human condition.
One of the more nuanced and Joyceian figures in the game is Cereza, the curious little girl who could equally be a representation of Bayonetta’s submission to a maternal role and a symbol of Bayonetta’s personal recovery. Cereza is actually Bayonetta’s younger self—as we come to learn—and as Bayonetta slowly appreciates Cereza’s company (an early witticism likens crying children to cockroaches), she arguably takes ownership of her humanity. Keep in mind, however, that her humanity may derive from her acceptance of the motherly role. The message this sends is simple: a woman does not feel fulfilled until she bears a child. On the other hand, Bayonetta is Cereza: her coming to terms with her child-self, even learning to love it, may represent her coming to terms with her past and becoming comfortable with who she really is.
Bayonetta is shown to be an ambiguous character, a savior and an outcast of her world, both resolute and unsure of herself, of her own history. She is in the process of reaching her character’s potential, which, despite her flirtatious, curvaceous, cartoonishly disproportionate drawbacks, makes her feel more relevant and compelling than many videogame characters. She is dynamic, and her progress is embedded in the game’s story, scenery, and gameplay. Joyce’s little boy in “The Sisters” can relate: he does not know what all of his motivations and feelings are. But he tries to describe them to us, and without trying, shows them to us.
We may never know everything the boy is thinking and feeling; we may never come to satisfying answers about Bayonetta. We do not fully understand the details of the relationship the boy had with the Reverend, only its depth; Bayonetta’s conception is a mystery, but we do know that she finally rejects her father’s very convoluted (and somewhat incestuous) plan to create his Utopia: one which is based on a mix of light and dark—and which requires her participation. This can be read a variety of ways: Bayonetta rejects her fate, rejects who she really is, or rejects a perversion of the beautiful nuance that she represents. But the effort of questioning is no less worthwhile: this is how we build empathy, humility, and learn to appreciate the complexity of the human condition.
How does a game reflect character growth and nuance in any comparable way to fine literature? Bayonetta, for one, incorporates a New Game Plus system, which allows players to carry over items, skills, and weapons from previous playthroughs into harder difficulties. Journal entries are embedded throughout the game, waiting to be collected. Cut scenes allow you to relive cinematic moments. Symbolism permeates throughout battle scenes and environments (the game’s mood is set by references to Rodin’s The Gates of Hell and The Divine Comedy). Provided the game sufficiently immerses you with its slick, sophisticated move set and Gothic, embellished level design, it seems to provide subtle provisions for players to recognize and reflect upon these deeper elements. A writer can do his or her very best to tell the story artfully: it is up to the reader to interpret the story.
We are beginning to reflect upon why our avatars mean something to us: whether we are projecting some part of ourselves in how we build our paladin in World of Warcraft, or taking on John Marston’s desire to find his family as our responsibility in Red Dead Redemption. We are hard-wired to seek narratives and symbols, according to Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, be they embedded or emergent in our art and experiences. It’s too bad we undermine their complexity when it’s smacking us in the face.
Bayonetta is an example of that. Granted, she does represent certain dubious assumptions about female behavior. But this is not her definitive character trait. Neither are her more admirable traits. These are two rather superficial, reductive binary oppositions. To appreciate the game means studying it, learning its symbolism, and understanding its many cultural and religious contexts, role reversals and subversions. It takes trying to understand the confusion of trying to find oneself, and the loneliness of being the only one of one’s kind. Most importantly, we must not form our opinions based on personal or modern cultural biases. And we can never, ever assume that even when we’ve studied our hardest, the meaning we derive from our own analysis will necessarily be the correct or only meaning.
Illustration by Daniel Purvis